Hatha yoga is the most spreaded kind of yoga on the west. It is thanks to its health benefits in form of stress relieve, strengthening and increasing flexibility of body or boosting the immune system. We could surely find much more compelling effects of hatha yoga and why we should practice it. But as many are warning (e.g. A.G.Mohan or The New York Times) it can cause also injuries. And before all we should still keep in mind as the name suggest that it is yoga and as such it has the same goal as other kinds of yoga.
Hatha Yoga is the union (yoga) of "force" (Hatha) of "sun" (ha) and "moon" (tha), it is about harmony and balance of these two great aspects manifesting through many things, like: body and mind, ida and pingala, negative and positive, consciousness and matter, masculine and feminine,Śiva and Śakti…..
Techniques of Hatha Yoga
The following is just the enumeration of the parts consisting Hatha Yoga with short description, the techniques in detail will be discussed in other places of this page. (The working link will be in blue)
1) The posture (Āsana) serves for attaining health, lightness of limbs and before all stable and pleasurable meditational posture.
2) The purification techniques (Ṣatkarmas) are six cleansing techniques, namely: Nauli, Basti, Neti, Kapalabhāti, Dhauti and Trātak. They should serve as a preparation of the body for higher practices by removing the impurities out of body.
3) The “breathe control” (Prānāyāma) is the heart of Hahta Yoga practices and teaches the yogi to control the life force within.
4) Energetic seals (Mudras) providing stability in all levels of human being
5) Inner techniques like mantras, yantras, visualizations, listening to inner sounds etc.
6) Realization, equal to ascending of Kundalinī to the sahasrāra cakra
Purpose of Hatha Yoga
The aim of Hatha Yoga is to realize the Self or enlightenment in a divinized body, which is attained through the practice which consist of two phases 1) purifying the body and prānic system (=nādīs and cakras), and 2) awakening the kundalinī. Nevertheless in many cases the Hatha Yoga practices are performed with other aims such as obtaining a nice body or special powers (sidhis) and these are placed above the ego transcendence, leaving just little space for authentic spiritual values of Yoga. To not misunderstand the real aim of Hatha Yoga it is suggest to combine it with other kinds of Yoga such as Bhakti yoga as Jñānadeva is suggesting in his work Jñāneśvari (commentary of Bhagavad Gīta). Another way to understand the Hatha Yoga is as the preliminary stage to Rāja yoga. This is described by Swātmarāma in Hatha Yoga Pradīpika as being able to control the involuntary functions of the body and energies before dealing with the mind itself.
Origin of Hatha Yoga
The Hatha Yoga has its origin in tantra (don´t mistaken for the left-handed (=Vāmācāra) sexual tantra, mostly known on West) which recognizes the body as a divine vehicle for self-realization and meritious actions. The self-realization is a whole body process in which the tantric masters aspire to create a diamond (vajra) or divine (daiva) body consisting of immortal substance. In this body they can easily accomplish spiritual perfection and self-realization. Such view of body is in contrast with many older traditions as Samkhya or Buddhism which don`t put much importance to body and rather see the body as unclean and unholy sack of bones, mucus, blood, feces etc.
The Hatha Yoga has its origin connected with most important schools of siddha movement in India (8-12 century C.E.) the Nāthas in north andMaheśvaras in south preceded by tantric techniques of kāya sādhana (=body cultivation). Traditionally the origin of Hatha Yoga is connected withMatsyedra Nāth and his disciple Gorakśa Nāth (10 century CE). There are many myth and hymns about these two and their spiritual accomplishments, one such tale of Hatha Yoga origin is stated below:
The story of Hatha yoga origin
Matsyendra (lord of the fishes) was a fisherman which was once devoured by a big fish, but thanks to his good karma he survived and in the belly of the fish. So he was taken to the place deep under the see where Śiva created a special environment to not being disturbed when imparting the knowledge to his wife Pārvatī . But she felt asleep. Lord Śiva happened to ask: "Are you listening?". And from the belly of the fish came the reply: "Yes, my Lord." But Śiva through his third eye could see the truth about the answer, but as the goddess felt asleep he decided rather to impart the knowledge of Hatha Yoga to Matsyendra. Who was than practicing in the fishes belly for another 12 years before the fish was caught and Matsyendrareturned to the land as realized being.
About Gorakśa (protector of cows) the story goes as this: A poor woman was praying to Śiva for getting a son. Touched by her prayers he decided to grant her wish. He appeared before her in form of a mendicant and gave her vibhuti (magical ash) to eat, after which she would concept a boy. But in her ignorance she discarded the ash to a cow dung. Twelve years later the Matsyendra appeared because he wanted to see the boy coming fromŚivas grace, about whom he heard on the bottom of the sea. But he found out that poor woman didn`t take the ash. Undisturbed by the finding he make her to search the heap of dung where she discarded the ash, finding splendid 12 years old boy Gorakśa. Matsyendra adopted him and take him for his disciple.
Traditional texts about Hatha Yoga
In past these teachings were secret, therefore not many text exists, and if they do, they don´t enter too deep into the topics still supposing that the students have their own master to guide them through the techniques. Some mentioning of Kundalinī Yoga which fairly overlaps with Hatha Yoga can be found in the Upaniṣads. The outline of Hatha Yoga can be found in the work of Gorakśa "Gorakśa Paddhati" (PDF) and in some others partially or fully saved works of Gorakśa. The main three known texts about Hatha Yoga are Hatha Yoga Pradīpīka of Swātmarāma (PDF) from 14 century CE, Gheranda samhita (PDF) from 17th century and Śiva Samhita (PDF) which enters a bit more the philosophical background than the other two. Many translations of these three can be easily found. The links above are just one example for each text. According to G. Feuerstein we can find many more text about Hatha Yoga like Hatha-Sanketa-Candrikā, Yoga Śāstra, Yoga Karnikā, Hatha Ratnāvalī, Yoga Yajñavalkya, Yoga Viṣaya, Yoga Bīja, Ānanda Samuccaya and many more mainly in form of manuscripts lying undiscovered in private libraries in India.
Hatha Yoga in modern times
The term hatha yoga is in present tend to designate the slower styles of āsana practice with more relaxation. Nevertheless all modern styles have its root in hatha yoga and by using āsanas, prānāyāma, mudras, mantras they qualify as such. We can encounter every year new styles and branches but the difference is usually just superficial for an overview you can use link speaking about most modern styles.